Jan Fries’ Kali Kaula is quite simply the best introduction to tantra written by a contemporary occultist ever.
Showing a firm commitment from the begiJan Fries’ Kali Kaula is quite simply the best introduction to tantra written by a contemporary occultist ever.
Showing a firm commitment from the beginning to acknowledging the complexity and multivocality in those traditions we have come to know as “tantric” (Fries points out that “Tantra” as such, is an etic term) Fries has broken away from all the standard “approaches” I’ve come to expect from occult authors – which is to say that he actually is aware (gasp!) that there are tantric texts, quotes from them, and encourages the reader to dig them out and read them as well. Also, unlike the majority of occultists who attempt to deal with this vast and complex subject, he is aware that the last thirty years has seen a massive growth in “tantric studies” in the academic world, not only in traditional Indology and textual analysis, but also in ethnology and gender studies for example. Fries draws heavily on the work of well-known scholars such as David Gordon White, Douglas Renfrew Brooks, and June McDaniel – but again, he’s not doing what lesser authors tend to do – which is standing as an intermediary/interpreter – so that readers don’t have to read the scholarly work themselves. Fries actively encourages his readers to read the same books he’s drawn on. He actually makes it clear when he’s generalising or about to simplify a complex topic. His forays into cross-cultral comparativism are both thoughtful and well-argued, with good supporting evidence, and he admits that he’s had to leave a lot of areas either untouched or only sketched out lightly – topics such as alchemy or sorcery for example, or tantric traditions such as the Sahajiya or the Khartabhajas. Fries also breaks with “occult tradition” by giving clear references and quotations – you won’t find any vague wittering about “ancients” here!
I’m not going to go through Kali Kaula chapter by chapter, but instead, I want to draw attention to particular topics and how Fries deals with them. I was particularly charmed for example, by chapters 9 & 10 – which deals with what might be termed “Heart practice” and owes at least some debt to Paul Muller-Ortega’s The Triadic Heart of Siva (1989). It’s refreshing to see this kind of material making its way into the “occult” domain. Chapter 11 is perhaps the inevitable chapter on chakras, kundalini and so forth. Although Fries does discuss the chakra schema made familiar through Sir John Woodroffe’s The Serpent Power he stresses the metaphorical nature of chakras, points out that there are a multitude of schemas, rather than the reified schema one often finds in contemporary occult texts.
Chapter 5 – “Masks of the Divine” sees Fries getting to grips with the difficult issue of “Gurus” – the necessity of having a human guru is fairly central to Indian tradition, but is perhaps one of the most tricky areas for contempary western occultists to deal with. Fries doesn’t offer any simplistic prescriptions either for or against the idea of the guru, but like many themes in this book, treats it as a complex phenomena which can be approached from different directions. The remainder of the chapter takes a look at some historical female saints, ascetics and tantric practitioners.
What about practice? Fries provides some really useful information on practices such as Nyasa, Mantra, Mudra, and breathing – the latter quite extensively, and some discussion of perceptual and memory exercises (which some readers may recall from his earlier book Visual Magick) and makes some highly plausible connections between some “tantric” practices and the “shaking” practices in Seidways. There’s useful chapters on approaching magical practice with the Mahavidyas and of course, with Kali in her various forms. There’s a good discussion of ritual-oriented practices such as Bhuta Suddhi.
As a “manual” Kali Kaula does not spoon-feed readers with simplified accounts of complex ideas, nor does Fries play the reductionist game of making tantric themes merely exotic analogues of already familiar western occult concepts. Fries’ attention to complexity and detail can make the book difficult going at times – but its well worth it. The book ends with a glosary of terms, a short section on language & pronunciation, and an extensive bibliography.
Really, for anyone who is at all interested in tantra-oriented practice, I cannot reccomend this book too highly....more
Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: the Fortunes of Hindu Festivals is a fascinating study of three important yearly Bengali feRevelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: the Fortunes of Hindu Festivals is a fascinating study of three important yearly Bengali festivals dedicated to the goddesses Durga, Kali and Jagaddhatri. Rachel Fell McDermott describes the development of these large public festivals, their growth from the 1700s onwards, and their relationship to social power, aspiration and status, and the commercialisation of the modern “puja industry”. She discusses how the representation of the goddesses has changed over time – and, in particular relation to Kali, what relationship modern representations of Kali bear to Her tantric past, and also highlights some recent controversies, such as the environmental impact of the pujas, and tensions over animal sacrifice; to the use of dirt from the doorways of sex workers in Durga Pujas.
Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal highlights the hidden history and politics behind the Bengali goddess festivals and the complex tensions over what constitutes “traditional practices”. If you want to understand more about the history and workings of these large public festivals and how they relate to different modalities of Indian religosity, this book is an excellent place to start....more
Lynn Foulston and Stuart Abbott’s Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press, 2009, p/bk, 16 colour images) manages to pack a greatLynn Foulston and Stuart Abbott’s Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices (Sussex Academic Press, 2009, p/bk, 16 colour images) manages to pack a great deal into its 292 pages. The first chapter provides an introduction to the theological concepts of Sakti, maya and prakrti – and provides an introductory look at “essentially benign” goddesses such as Sri-Lakmsi and Sarasvati – and “essentially fierce” goddesses such as Durga and Kali. Next, Foulston & Abbott review textual sources – beginning with the Vedas, and moving through to the Puranas, with particular focus on texts such as the Devi-mahatmya. Chapter 3 focuses on key themes in goddess mythology, such as the descent of Ganga and the events around the destruction of Daksa’s sacrifice. They also explore the relationship between local and localised pan-Indian goddesses. Chapter 4, in turn, examines Tantric goddesses – in particular groups such as the Yoginis, the Seven Mothers, and the Ten Mahavidyas, and also a brief introduction to Sri Vidya. The second part of Hindu Goddesses – “Practices” deals with issues relating to goddess worship, festivals, and pilgrimages; providing an introductory overview of major festival pujas to goddesses such as Durga and Kali; goddess temples and Sakti pithas; localised forms of goddesses such as Kamakhya and Minaksi; and looks at the diverse forms of practice, from devotional and tantric rituals to temple and home worship. The final chapter examines the relationship between “Mother India” and Hindu nationalism, and looks at some relatively “new” forms of the goddess such as Santosi Ma, AIDS-amma and Manushi Swachha Narayani – the broom goddess.
Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices has a strong emphasis on ethnographic accounts of goddess practice, and, whilst textual sources are not ignored, Foulston & Abbottt also give much insight into material culture and the relationship between goddess theologies and everyday life in contemporary India. If you’re after an introductory book on Hindu goddesses in all their diversity and glory, I’d recommend Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices highly. ...more
This book, first published in 1986, is widely considered to be a “classic” work on Hindu Goddesses. The first chapter provides an overview of goddesseThis book, first published in 1986, is widely considered to be a “classic” work on Hindu Goddesses. The first chapter provides an overview of goddesses in Vedic literature, then there are chapters focusing on the more well-known Indian goddesses: Sri-Laksmi, Parvati, Sarasvati, Sita, Radha, Durga, Kali, and the Mahadevi. Kinsley also examines groups of goddesses – the Matrkas and the Mahavidyas. The final two chapters examine, respectively, the Goddesses and their relation to Sacred Geography, and “local” or Village Goddesses. There is also an appendix dealing with the Indus Valley Civilisation and the problems of extrapolating too widely about evidence for goddess worship from the little we know about it. The first chapter is a useful start for anyone interested in looking into the earliest textual evidence for goddesses in India, examining goddesses such as Vac, Ratri or Nirrti. The chapters on Sr-Laksmi, Durga, Kali, Parvati, etc., focus on textual and iconographic representations. For each goddess, Kinsley examines the development of textual sources, the progression of each goddesses’ mythologies, and examines festivals, and how each goddess relates to wider cultural values and expressions. Kinsley was one of the first scholars to examine in depth the relationship between goddesses and the land, and whilst its easy to take this kind of material for granted nowadays, its not hard to see how ground-breaking his work was in the late 1980s. In Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition he eloquently expresses the diversity and richness of Indian goddess traditions in a way that few others have matched. Its an excellent work, and one for numerous re-readings. ...more
The Vamakesvara Tantra is widely recognised as one of the primary texts of the Sri Vidya tradition. Although, like many tantras, it is difficult to daThe Vamakesvara Tantra is widely recognised as one of the primary texts of the Sri Vidya tradition. Although, like many tantras, it is difficult to date accurately, scholars such as Guy L. Beck and Douglas Renfrew Brooks have offered the opinion that it was composed before the the ninth century (a 12th-13th century commentary ascribed to Jayaratha states that an earlier commentary was made by Isvarasiva, a 9th century Kashmiri author). In this book, Mike gives a translation of the five patalas of the text – which is one part of a larger work – the Nityashodashikarnava (he gives a summary of the content of the second part, the Yogini Hridaya on his website.
The translation of the tantra itself is prefaced by a general introduction to Lalita Tripurasundari and to the key themes of Sri Vidya practice. Mike provides an overview of the nine arvanas (or mandalas) of the Sri Yantra and the various groups of saktis dwelling therein, briefly discourses on Lalita’s fifteen-syllable mantra, and provides some extensive dhyanas on Lalita and her Paradise Island. There is an excellent and very welcome section detailing Lalita’s fifteen Nityas (“eternities”) including their yantras, mantras and dhyanas. This exposition forms a very useful recap for practitioners, and those with some familiarity with tantric themes, but I daresay that a general reader who is new to all this will find themselves having to do some research.
The Vamakesvara Tantra is a dense, sophisticated text which shows influences of Kaula and Kashmiri Saivism (for a discussion of the relationship between Sri Vidya and Saivism see Brooks in The Roots of Tantra, Brown, Harper, SUNY 2002). The first patala is mainly concerned with instructions for creating the “great chakra” (i.e. the Sri Yantra). The second patala is an exposition of various abhicara rituals (see this post for some discussion) – sometimes termed the “six acts”. The third patala is an exposition of the Tripura Mudras and the fourth gives the siddhis obtained from the worship of the Goddess. The fifth patala gives the rules for homa and japa sadhana.
All in all, The Mysteries of the Red Goddess is a great little ebook, and whilst it will be of particular interest to contemporary practitioners of Sri Vidya, it will benefit anyone who is interested in finding out more about tantric practices and traditions. Hopefully, Mike will see his way to releasing more of his translations and expositions in this format. ...more
Sondra L. Hausner’s Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (Indiana University Press, 2007, 250pp) is an intimate ethnographic accountSondra L. Hausner’s Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (Indiana University Press, 2007, 250pp) is an intimate ethnographic account of the lives of Hindu renouncers in northern India and Nepal. Throughout Wandering, Hausner highlights seemingly opposed tensions and how these are reconciled in the daily lives of her informants; for example between the ideal of renouncers as solitary individuals versus sadhu life as a parallel form of community; between the emphasis on the illusory nature of space, time versus the importance of sacred time, space and place, and the issues of religious practice; between the body as illusion and hindrance and the body as the ground of experience.
Wandering with Sadhus opens with the perspective that there is a fundamental split in renouncer lives which is at once both practical (splitting away from householder society) and metaphorical (the split of the soul away from the body). Hausner relates how this split is mirrored across all aspects of a renouncer’s life and that this reflects a wider Hindu concern with transcendence from the material world. She points out that all of her informants strongly emphasised how their religious practices or lifestyles were different to householder society, and goes on to discuss how much renouncer society offers a “place of refuge” from mainstream Indian society – particularly for women. She also points out that for householders “the sadhu community symbolizes the fearsome power of a world outside structural norms, from which there is no return. I heard a number of lay families, even as they outwardly expressed respect for renouncers, tease their children with the threat of giving them away to a wandering sadhu if they misbehaved” (p45). She presents a useful review of Hindu ideas of the body, and argues that the “split” between renouncers and householders does reflect, to a degree, the work of Louis Dumont – particularly his work on renouncers as forming an “other-worldly challenge” to the social web of householder life. She refutes the contemporary idea that the mind-body split is not present in Indian religious or medical body traditions, and argues that the interpretation of Cartesian dualism is not actually a seperation of mind from body, but between body-mind and soul – pointing to the similarities between Descartes and the Indian Samkhya philosophy. She suggests (pace Jonathan Parry) that “the collective refusal to think of South Asian embodiment as a dualistic enterprise might be Orientalism at work” (p56). This discussion is carried on in the book’s appendix, which provides a useful review of anthropological work on Hindu renunciation and embodiment. Pretty much all of the heavy “theory” in this book is done in chapter one and the appendix, which certainly makes the book more accessible.
Hausner shows how, despite textual ideals and popular representations of sadhus as isolated individual practitioners, renouncer life is highly social – mantained through family lineages, administrative orders (akharas), and the guru-disciple relationship – allowing the widely geographically dispersed sadhu communities to remain vital, ensuring the transmission of religious values and the maintenance of communal identities, and also how the akharas both support and discipline their initiates. She also examines how the act of wandering is related to the representation of sadhus as having broken free of the constraints of householder life – and how renouncers’ spatial experience of community is related to networks of pilgrimage circuits. Wandering, she points out “teaches detachment and observation, but also gathers the blessings from dispersed holy places into the body of the wanderer.” She describes pilgrimage sites as “spatial nodes” where members of the dispersed sadhu community may periodically meet each other and examines how visiting pilgrimage sites can act as social and economic supports for itinerant renouncers Hausner also highlights the tensions – and material problems – of wandering versus the benefits settling down in a particular place in terms of the dictates of practice. Hausner also makes some interesting contrasts between “places of solitude” such as caves, jungle, and forests, and the social demands of ashrams.
In her conclusion, Hausner discusses how social and bodily practices are understood by sadhus within terms of their religious worldview: “Renouncers insist on the split between soul and body because it is a powerful metaphor for the split they enact from householder society” (p183). She ably articulates how for renouncers, religious transcendence translates into social power – that because sadhus are not tied to one particular place – they inhabit a circuit of holy places, and function on divine, rather than everyday time, they are considered able to manipulate the world at will. Their peripheral and mobile status contributes to their reputation for being religiously powerful. As one of Hausner’s informants put it: “The individual thinks the individual body is his body; the knower of brahman knows the whole universe is his body. Others see his body as his body, but from his point of view his body is the whole universe” (p185). She also presents some useful observations on the nature – from a renouncer’s perspective – of bodily experience, and in particular, how renouncer’s religious discipline serve to enable them to distinguish between “experience that clarifies and experience that obscures.”...more
David Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press 2009, h/back, 336pp – also available in paperback and for Kindle) is third part of aDavid Gordon White’s Sinister Yogis (University of Chicago Press 2009, h/back, 336pp – also available in paperback and for Kindle) is third part of a “triptych” (the previous two books were Alchemical Bodies and Kiss of the Yogini.) Of the three, I would say that Sinister Yogis is the most accessible, although like the other two, it is not exactly a page-turner either.
According to White, the majority of scholarly approaches to Yoga have oriented themselves around the “philosophical yoga” tradition (commonly known as “Raja Yoga” or “classical yoga”) of which Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a foundational text. White says that: “it has been the equation of yoga with meditation or contemplation that has been most responsible for the skewed interpretations that have dominated the historiography of yoga for much of the past one hundred years.” (p42) White says that this focus has had the effect of marginalising earlier (and later) developments and so, as a counter, Sinister Yogis focuses on the Yogi – the practitioners, and examines accounts of practitioners within a wide variety of literary genres spanning a period of over a thousand years; ranging through the Vedas, Epics and Puranas, to early traveller accounts of Yogis, colonial reports; narratives from Hindi, Sanskrit and Persian sources, which depict yogis behaving in extraordinary and yes, sometimes “sinister” fashion, but largely not depicted in terms of the practices familiar from “classical yoga” – assuming postures, restraining breath and senses, meditating or realising transcendent states of consciousness. White asserts that, in contradiction to the majoritarian view of Yoga practice, the yogis in these narratives are not introspective or inward-turning.
In countering the familiar image of the yogi as “holy man” – detached from the concerns of the everyday world and spurning the acquisition (and use) of siddhis – magical powers such as the ability to enter another person’s body, raising the dead and so forth, White makes the radical claim that this image of the yogi is not historically correct, and he gives a lengthy examination of “the science of entering another body” (which can be likened to a form of possession) and how this relates to Indian models of perception and modes of personhood:
“Before it was closed off from the world to ensure the splendid isolation of spirit from matter, or the vacuum necessary for the “hydraulic” practices of hatha yoga, the yogic body was conceived as an open system, capable of transacting with every other body – inanimate, animate, human, divine, and celestial – in the universe” (p166).
Moreover, White examines how scholarly representations of the yogic body in terms of it being a microcosmic “miniature” of the wider cosmos is a mis-step (see some related discussion here); rather, he says, it would be more accurate to understand the yogic body as “a self-magnifying self that has become fully realized by the magni-ficent universe” (p175).
In addition, Sinister Yogis examines portrayals of yogis as power-brokers, ascetic warrior-mercenaries and traders; and the British criminalisation of yogis in the nineteenth century. He presents a critique of the popular, unreflexive assumption that the figure in Sir John Marshall’s so-called “Pasupati Seal” is seated in a yogic posture, and argues that the “lotus position” was originally associated with royal sovereignty – and later became extended to yogis due to the relationship between yoga and sovereign power.
Sinister Yogis is without doubt a ground-breaking approach to the historical representation and understanding of yoga traditions and aims. It overturns much of what is considered canonical in terms of how we think about yoga and yogis....more
Ron Barrett’s Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death and Healing in North India (University of California Press, 2008, h/bk, p/bk & Adobe Digital EditioRon Barrett’s Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death and Healing in North India (University of California Press, 2008, h/bk, p/bk & Adobe Digital Edition) is an engaging examination of contemporary Aghori adepts and how, in shifting their practices towards the healing of socially stigmatised diseases (in particular, leprosy) the Aghoris have become socially legitimate and acquired political power. This is particularly interesting as popular representations of Aghoris are bound up with cremation ground worship, cannibalism and coprophagy (although admittedly the latter does not loom large in popular western representations of antinomian tantric practices).
In This book, based on extensive fieldwork with members of the Kina Rami Aghori lineage in Banares, Barrett examines the cultural dynamics of pollution, death and healing in relation to what he terms “Aghor Medicine” – which includes a wide range of eclectic practices such as religious purificatory rites, Ayurvedic and biomedical treatments conducted with the guidance of Aghoris, and the Aghori philosophy of nondiscrimination which challenges practitioners and clients alike to confront and overcome fears and aversions – particularly those around death and disease. Although, as Barrett shows, much of the older cremation-ground practice smashan-sadhana has been supplanted by more socially acceptable practices, the underlying philosophy of cremation-ground practice and its symbolism is still central to Aghori medical practices. He also examines how patients & devotees of the Aghoris draw upon the cultural capital surrounding their reputation for possessing power (shakti) and magical abilities (siddhis).
Along the way, Barrett examines and dispells many of the popular misconceptions that have grown up around the Aghoris. For example, he is cautious about automatically assuming that Aghoris are “tantrics” – discussing contemporary Aghoris’ own ambivalence towards the term, and the general difficulties of defining just what constitutes “tantra” anyway. Instead, he opts for a polythetic approach – “in which Aghor may share enough features with certain tantric traditions to claim some family resemblance but in in which no single feature defines all of them as necessarily tantric” (p12). There is also an interesting discussion of the notion of the right-hand path (dakshinamarg) and left-hand path (vamamarg) which are often portrayed as oppositional and antagonistic. One of Barrett’s sources, an Aghora guru named Hari Baba however, takes a nondualist view that the two paths are complementary to each other:
“they are like two banks of a river that work together to channel the water in a certain direction. The disciple might use one or the other path or a certain combination of both, at different stages of his or her development. Moreover, the disciple need not be an Aghori to combine left-hand approaches with right-hand ones. … Left-hand practices are meant to be temporary exercises, not permanent ways of living. They are supposed to be practiced in moderation, no more than is needed to overcome a particular obstacle to nondiscrimination.”(p152)
Aghor Medicine is a highly readable and fascinating book which sheds much light on the interrelationships between sacred geography, healing and pollution, as well as showing how the Aghori tradition is changing and developing....more
The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulf - the edition on my bookshelf is from MotilalThe Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulf - the edition on my bookshelf is from Motilal (1995) – a 400-odd page hardback, with four colour plates (it was first published back in 1982, from Berkeley). The book is divided into two main sections. The first half of Divine Consort provides a multidimensional analysis of Radha, the consort (or mistress) of Krishna, ranging from early references to goddesses within Krishna-oriented religosity, Radha-Krishna as divine duality in Jayadeva’s Gita-govinda; examination of Radha in Puranic texts, plays; through to representations of Radha in modern Hindi poetry. These essays shed much light on Radha and her relationality to Krishna, showing for example, that she is much more than a subordinate consort (see in particular Donna Wulff’s essay on Radha in relation to the 16th century plays of Rupa Gosvami and modern kirtan performances). C. Mackenzie Brown for example, examines the emerging theology of Radha in the Puranas, noting the influences of both Samkhya and Sakta theology, whilst Shrivatsa Goswami reflects on views of Radha from the perspective of the Caitanya Sampradaya and the aesthetic play of Rasa.
The second section of the collection features essays on a diverse range of Indian Goddesses – some of which are said to be “consorts” – others, considered to be “independent”. Highlights (for me) are Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty’s considerations of the power-plays within Siva and Parvati’s marriage, Thomas Coburn’s introduction to the Devi-mahatmya, Diana Eck’s examination of the Ganga as river/goddess; Edward Dimock’s “A Theology of the Repulsive: The Myth of the Goddess Sitala” and Vasudha Narayanan’s introduction to the goddess Sri. There are also contributions from well-known scholars such as David Kinsley (Kali) A. K Ramujan (women saints) and Frederique Marglin (“Types of Sexual Union and their Implicit Meanings”).
The Divine Consort is an excellent anthology of essays. If there’s one central theme here, its the emphasis on the goddesses in relation – to other deities or to devotees – and its expression through the love-play of the goddess’ power. Something I’ve occasionally found in pagan or occult texts which mention Indian deities is that whilst there’s a strong focus on Siva or Kali, and much writing on either the (supposedly) “antinomian/transgressive” elements of Saivite tantra or goddess-focused Sakta tantra, the Vaisnava-Krishna-Radha oriented material, by contrast does not seem to be so “popular”. I do find this rather strange, as its in the Vaisnava or Krishna texts, poems and plays that one can find some of the most extensive theological expressions and considerations of the power of love, longing and erotic mutuality and union. For an introductory glimpse into the rich love-play of Radha, as well as a wealth of fascinating essays on the diverse aspects of goddess traditions and praxis in India, The Divine Consort is a good place to start. There’s a new version of this book out now, titled Devi: Goddesses of India (Univ. California Press, 1996) – however, only two of the essays from the edition I’ve reviewed here – the contributions of Diana Eck and the late David Kinsley are unchanged. Thomas Coburn, Donna Wulff and Vasudha Narayanan’s essays have been re-written, and there are seven new essays. The focus of this new edition has shifted somewhat too – whereas the contributors to The Divine Consort are mostly working out of textual analysis, this new edition is more oriented towards ethnographic accounts of lived practice. ...more